COAST CITIES — As a volunteer patient advocate at Tri-City Medical Center, Aimeeleigh Coulter’s job is to make the hospital a better place for the people who are there, oftentimes not by choice.
That can mean consulting with social workers, talking to family members or simply getting them a magazine or listening to what they have to say.
“Sometimes an ear is better than a warm blanket,” the Del Mar resident said. “I give them someone to talk to if they want to vent. I take notes and assure them that they have a voice. Sometimes it’s just nice to have someone who isn’t there to poke them. I try to bring the humanity back.”
The Tri-City program aims to have a trained advocate visit each new patient within 24 hours of admission and do everything non-medically possible to ensure comfort.
Coulter joined the team in April, not because she’s retired and has some spare time or is pursuing a career in medicine.
“I wanted to pay it forward,” she said. “I was given a pardon by my creator and I have to earn my keep.”
On Jan. 15, 2012, at the age of 32, Coulter suffered a stroke.
“I had headaches all week, which prompted me to get a chiropractic acupressure massage,” she said. “That relieved some of the pressure I felt from the headaches, but I felt weird. Thirty-plus hours later, at 4 a.m., I stroked.”
Coulter had been vomiting and was staying with her boyfriend, a firefighter and paramedic. She got up to use the bathroom. While sitting on the toilet, she said her body felt like it was “taken over by a giant yawn” before she crashed to the floor.
When her boyfriend heard the noise, he knocked on the door and asked if she was OK. “I couldn’t respond. I had lost all my motor skills. I felt like a fish out of water but I was completely aware of what was going on.
“He grabbed me by the shoulders,” she said. “I could see the fear in his eyes. He got dressed, threw me over his shoulders and we went to the ER. On the way he pleaded with me to keep my eyes open.”
Coulter said she remained aware of everything that was happening. She just couldn’t respond. “I felt like a ragdoll,” she said.
When her mother, a register nurse, arrived, she assumed the worst.
Coulter was hooked up to machines to help her breathe, get fluids and eat. Doctors ruled out an overdose of the pain medication she was prescribed for her headaches, as well as the headaches, as potential causes.
She said she was eventually diagnosed with a left vertebral artery dissection, likely as a result of the massage. A tear in the inner lining of the artery in her neck that supplies blood to the brain caused blood to enter the arterial wall and form a clot, which interrupted blood flow.
She was also diagnosed as either having or mimicking locked-in syndrome, in which patients are aware of their surroundings but unable to communicate. Generally, there is no treatment and the result is often death.
In fact, Coulter was told she would likely die. She was administered last rites and asked if she wanted to continue living on life support.
Still able to move her eyes, she learned to communicate using blinks — one for yes, two for no and three for I love you.
“I remember thinking I didn’t want to live that way but still, game’s not over,” she said. She spent nearly a month in intensive care and, to make things worse, contracted pneumonia and infections.
She also learned to expand her vocabulary. Visiting family members and relatives would say the alphabet. She would blink to make them stop at a letter, which was written down until a word, then a sentence was formed.
“I had a lot to say,” Coulter said. “I swore a lot. I was in a lot of pain and very uncomfortable.”
Other than her blinks, Coulter was totally paralyzed for three weeks and failing all the neurological tests.
“Then one night, I moved my arm from my hip to my belly,” she said. “Before that I had involuntary twitches. So my boyfriend asked me to move my arm again, and I did. He freaked out. Then slowly, thank God — literally — I started thawing out, region by region.”
Her paralysis continued to decrease and Coulter was eventually moved to a nursing home. “That was not my plan,” she said. “It was difficult. My mom came in to shave my legs, brush my hair, bathe me. And I had excellent therapists.”
Coulter said she began progressing rapidly, although it took a while for her to regain her ability to talk. The breathing tube was removed and she started walking a few steps at a time. Eventually she went home to live with her mother.
She started with a wheelchair and then progressed to a walker. “I spent a lot of time sitting outside. I had lost so much weight in the hospital I was finally bikini-ready,” she joked, adding that she doesn’t recommend the method to anyone.
“I believe it was a miracle,” she said. “There’s no reason I’m sitting here today.”
Coulter partially credits her recovery to the fact that she’s “a very stubborn woman.”
“When someone says you’re going to die, my response was game’s not over yet,” she said. “Life is worth living and I had a strong will to live. I also had a lot of visitors, good wishes and prayers.”
One visitor in particular had a life-changing impact. Her family reached out to Kate Adamson, author of “Paralyzed but not Powerless” who survived locked-in syndrome.
“She gave me hope for the future,” Coulter said. “At one point I still wasn’t sure what my quality of life would be, but I knew I wanted to pay it forward. I feel like I was given a gift to help people. That experience made me want to reach out to patients who were in the same situation.
“I got a crash course in being a patient,” she said. “It gave me a lot of insight into medical care. I felt like a patient, not a person. But the whole person needs to be addressed. Clinicians are often busy and overworked and they can’t bring the humanity to patients the way they would like to.”
Until she got her license back a few months ago, Coulter took the bus from Del Mar to Oceanside to volunteer at Tri-City, although that’s not the hospital where she was treated.
“I’ve always been helpful here, not helpless, so I can help others without getting emotional,” she said. “It’s really important for people to support their community medical centers and hospitals.”
In addition to volunteering, she is a contract marketing assistant at Tri-City and occasionally works shifts as a bartender at Señor Grubby’s in Carlsbad.
Although they remain friends, Coulter and her boyfriend broke up in January. She said relationships often don’t survive a traumatic experience. But that’s OK. She’s moved on.
“I’m single and ready to mingle,” she said. “I have a bad case of the ‘Why nots?’ When you almost lose your life it gives you a new perspective.”